The Pressing Need to Increase Research in and on Psychoanalysis

By Kernberg, Otto F. | International Journal of Psychoanalysis, August 2006 | Go to article overview

The Pressing Need to Increase Research in and on Psychoanalysis


Kernberg, Otto F., International Journal of Psychoanalysis


1. An overview

I believe that the psychoanalytic community is faced with a pressing need to significantly increase research on all aspects of psychoanalytic theory, technique, and applications. For the purpose of this paper, I refer to research as systematic observations, under controlled conditions, leading to new knowledge. This-admittedly broad-definition includes historical research, clinical investigation, and naturalistic as well as empirical research.

Empirical research that does not consider fully the complex conceptual issues involving key psychoanalytic concepts runs the risk, in its operational definition of variables, of equivocating the nature of that which is being measured, while failing to do justice to the scope and depth of the relevant psychoanalytic concepts under investigation. Conceptual research, focusing on the historical development, conflictual definitions, and predominant present social usage of certain concepts, runs the risk of sterility unless such study is linked to empirical investigation that may clarify controversies in the conceptual field and the related theories reflected in this concept.

Why this appeal regarding the urgent need for a major increase in psychoanalytic research? In short, the urgency of this task involves, first of all, the scientific need to reassess and advance our knowledge; second, our social responsibility to reassure the public regarding the effectiveness of psychoanalysis and the psychoanalytically based psychotherapies we are developing, and to demonstrate our ongoing efforts to increase the range and efficacy of these treatments. All of this should also justify and assure the reimbursement systems for psychoanalysis. Third, we must increase our professional and scientific relationships with boundary sciences and disciplines, and strengthen our relationships with the clinical and the academic world.

Without an ongoing exploration of the efficacy of psychoanalysis and derivative treatments, we run the risk of being discarded by the mental health delivery systems. The financial pressures that militate against support of long-term psychotherapy at this time, the stress on evidence-based treatments in the medical field, the competing claims of non-psychoanalytic psychotherapies and psychopharmacology require a creative development of comparative research, which demonstrates our contribution to the social and medical environment, and may affect the cultural attitude toward psychoanalysis as well.

2. Current empirical research and its critique

Within the neurobiological field, the study of the relationship between affect activation and cognitive control systems has revealed the structures related to storage of affective memory and its activation in the context of new affective stimulation (Panksepp, 1998). We know, for example, that the excessive activation of negative affect related to hyper-reactivity of the amygadala and to abnormality of certain neurotransmitters, if and when complicated by a lack of adequate activation of controlling and contextualizing prefrontal and preorbital cortical structures, may determine an excessively aggressive temperament and lack of impulse control. These findings need to be related to theoretical and clinical questions regarding the concepts of affects, drives, and ego functions. The neurobiology of consciousness, dissociated mental states, and alterations of consciousness under acute traumatic conditions need to be related to the psychoanalytic study of primitive defensive operations centered on splitting, and the psychology of dissociative functioning. The study of normal and pathological attachment provides information on the relationship between early object relations and disturbances in the capacity for later object relations, which, when combined with the study of temperamental predisposition, provides an important potential bridge between psychoanalytic and neurobiological research. …

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